Kim Ashdown spent 12 years as an animal trainer at SeaWorld between 1994 and 2010. She worked with whales, dolphins, sea lions, otters and birds of prey. Since leaving SeaWorld, Kim has become outspoken about the realities of marine mammal captivity and is an anti-captivity advocate for the animals she worked for. More recently, you may have seen her the film “Blackfish.”
“As a former trainer of 12 years, trainers love the animals and (want to) believe in all the PR they are told Sea World does. I took them at their word about why we medicate, why the teeth are chipped and why they live to 35 years. When I opened my eyes later I saw that the love of my life was lying to me.
I can say that corporate Sea World values the lives of the animals as much as they value a paycheck… I can say that Corporate Sea World values the lives of its trainers as much as they value avoiding another PR nightmare such as Dawn’s death. So yes, SW is concerned about the animals welfare and trainer safety… but why and to what extent? Only enough to skate by.
After 10 years with dolphins, sea lions and birds of prey, I was moved to Shamu Stadium. This was after they told trainers they would never have to be at Shamu stadium if they didn’t think they were “Shamu Material” (right after the accident with Ken Peters). After the transfer, I told them again I wasn’t “Shamu Material”…It took everything in me to admit that I was nervous around the whales, because I was fearful of losing my job. I didn’t want to fall in myself or have to rescue a trainer who might accidentally fall in and when I ask to be moved from Shamu stadium to ANY OTHER AREA including a non-animals area, I was told I was to stay at Shamu and because of my new confession, I was to be watched closely for mistakes and any mistake (MISTAKE AROUND A KILLER WHALE) would be grounds for termination. Needless to say- I left. I couldn’t believe I was telling them I was nervous around Tilikum and they said they would wait for me to make a mistake working around the animals and then they would fire me. One month later, Dawn died. I’m glad I was shown the door. I owe Sea World a great big THANK YOU for showing me your true colors.
Corporate greed catches up with you no matter how black and white the issue.”
Why did you want to work at SeaWorld?
Kim Ashdown: I grew up near the ocean and had a love for marine life. Marineland rescued and rehabilitated dolphins and I would go there on field trips and stay for hours. After college, I actually taught camp Sea World to the kids and then found out about the swim test. I thought that that would be the coolest job on the planet, so I tried out and got the job.
Everything they told me in the education department, I believed. I had no reason to question anything they said. I thought I was a marine mammal expert by the time I was done. When all of your coworkers say and believe the same thing, it is like drinking the kool-aid. Why question the place you believe to be the epitome of marine mammal care and research?
I stayed because it was fun. Performing was in my blood. It wasn’t until I gained the confidence to speak out and question things that I saw that trainers and animals were not always at Sea Worlds best interest. The almighty dollar ruled supreme and that was evident in simple things like management having the power to put certain people together who they knew would clash and force one to leave, or a more subtle thing like when we were told that the whales needed to perform in the show and if we treated them like a sick whale, they would start to act like a sick whale.
At what point in your career did you start to recognize that the trainers and animals were not top priority?
Kim Ashdown: Small decisions made by management over the course of 12 years. The biggest was in 2008 when managers asked me to jump in a pool to help force an animal into an adjoining pool. I had no safety equipment on or SCUBA nearby, but they still looked me straight in the eye and asked me to jump into water with the whale. An apprentice trainer was poolside with me and she did indeed jump in because she was at the point where she just wanted to please those around her and she also thought it was cool to get into the water with a whale (false killer whale). I believe that was the turning point in my career where I refused authority.
Other times we were asked to “fly” on a cable around the pool even if we noticed issues with the cable system. Also, during “VIP” shows we would always break the rules. Trainers would swim with unapproved animals or new trainers would do unapproved behaviors because we wanted to put on the best show ever. Rules were only rules to put on paper. Rules were broken frequently if they needed to be. Managers could pretend like rules weren’t broken by “promoting a trainer” for a show or calling a show “practice” for an unapproved trainer. It was ridiculous. The thing that frustrated me the most was having Jozu perform in shows when she didn’t feel well. Like I said, managers would say that they needed to be in shows because if we treated them as if they were sick, they would start to get sick (kinda like the opposite of the placebo effect). That really bothered me. Then I started questioning everything.
How did you justify staying at SeaWorld so long with all of this going on?
Kim Ashdown: At first, I only saw how they treated the trainers who were and were not in their favor. It wasn’t until after I left that I found out that what they said was lies. I loved the animals and I loved performing. Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to question their ethics. Then they wanted me out. I am still learning things from “Blackfish“‘s research.
A lot of people think that marine mammal training involves food deprivation or food control. Is that true?
Kim Ashdown: If we ever deviated from their base (the daily amount of food they are supposed to get) then we would have to get a veterinarians approval. It really wasn’t about making them go hungry- if that were the case, I would’ve left a long time ago. But do we step up to do a session and if they don’t obey, do we walk away? Yes. We may try again, but it’s more about letting them see we have a bucket of food, we ask them to do something and If they don’t, we leave. Sometimes we will step back up and do a completely different session and they get all of their food that day but sometimes, if it is an important behavior, like a separation from another animal, we will leave the poolside without giving them their fish. It really isn’t a diet thing- SeaWorld doesn’t want them to starve or get sick. It’s a power thing. We are in control and you must do what we ask or we walk away with the food. Sometime we were more reinforcing than the food. So, some could say lack of interaction is more of a punishment than leaving without feeding them.
What do you think about the education SeaWorld provides the public? Do trainers and educators really give out false facts to the guests?
Kim Ashdown: Absolutely. If I told you I owned a VERY rare beetle, and I told you I have studied it years on end, and then I told you everything I learned about that beetle, you would probably want to believe me. How much more for killer whales at a place you want to believe is doing their best to provide the best life for the whales? Even after 12 years there, I still learned things after watching “A Fall From Freedom” and “Blackfish”.
When you were at SeaWorld did you witness any incidents of aggression between the whales and each other or the whales and the trainers, that wasn’t recorded or isn’t known by the public?
Kim Ashdown: I can’t even begin to count how many aggressive incidents [happened] between animal and animal, or animal and trainer.
Any that really stick out to you?
Kim Ashdown: Bites, being pulled under, being tail fluked, aggression between animals was daily….none that were as bad as seen in “Blackfish.”We were told we were to learn and review from aggression video tapes, but we never did see them. The OSHA trial was able to make them public.
How did you determine which animals were to be housed together? Were there a lot of family separations?
Kim Ashdown: I mainly worked with dolphins and sea lions. They were all adult males. No family units. I did work with a family of otters and they kept them together for the most part. Other trainers that worked at Shamu know about family units. I never really cared to know about that stadium’s lineage.
Do the animals receive enrichment outside of the shows?
Kim Ashdown: We gave them toys, ice, frozen fish, hosed them with water jets and played with them at the glass. But seriously- looking back- there’s not a lot that we can give them to enrich their life compared to the ocean. A prisoner could find a straw fascinating if he’s belongings were limited, but you and I need more than a straw to be enriched.
What is your opinion on the animal-trainer bond?
Kim Ashdown: It is as strong as any relationship can be. We are paid to care for them and we spend more time with them than our family. They become family.
What affect do you think “Blackfish” will have on SeaWorld?
Kim Ashdown: I think the public will start holding zoos and aquariums accountable to provide the utmost care for rescue and rehabilitation. I think containment for entertainment is on its way out. If not this generation, then at least the next.
What do you think is the best solution to captivity? Where should things go from here?
Kim Ashdown: Stop collecting and breeding. I would support sea sanctuaries for re-acclimation or for those truly injured beyond rehabilitation, but that can get sticky too because the definition of releasable would have to be more defined. Eventually, I would like for all killer whales to be free in the ocean. I am not educated enough to say whether or not what whales would be suited for release back in the ocean, but we all can agree that a step in the right direction is to provide better living conditions, even if it is off-site with real ocean water.
Thank you so much for providing your insight into marine mammal captivity and training, Kim!